A Sermon for Christmas Eve -24 December 2015
by John Edward Miller, Rector
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:1-20
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
When Luke’s account of the Nativity is read on this holy night, we are touched and attracted by the simple grandeur of the scene painted with the evangelist’s words. Together, we are drawn to details that we can recite by heart: the trek to Bethlehem for the tax registration, the no-vacancy sign at the inn, the cattle stall, the babe delivered by Mary, swaddled in bands of cloth, lying in a manger. Then there are the shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Their reverie is suddenly interrupted by an angel, a messenger from God, who announces good news to all mankind: a Savior, who is Christ the King, has been born in nearby Bethlehem, the city of David. And the angel urges them to go, and seek out the infant for themselves, and witness an event like no other. And suddenly the one angel is joined by an angelic host, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward all people!”
The simple shepherds got the message. They heard the angels say, “All people,” and they understood that included them. The royal birth was not just for the select few – the intelligent, the talented and gifted, the wealthy, and the elite, but for everyone, because everyone needs the gift that the Christ child brings to the human family. As a consequence, Luke tells us, “the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
They felt the yearning to go and see, they went with haste, and they were not disappointed by what they found.
The problem is that the gift that God gives to us in Christ can be a fleeting experience. While the shepherds saw him first-hand, later generations have tended to lose sight of him in their daily life. Without humility and openness to that precious gift, we can trivialize it, or regard it with skeptical and jaundiced eyes, or postpone it for later consideration. To do so is not only a sign of our selfishness, but is also a loss of incomparable value.
There is a longing deep inside us that aches to be filled. We humans have been created little lower than the angels, but we know that, in and of ourselves, we are incomplete. Wholeness of being eludes us, and we long for our hunger to be satisfied. Sad to say, we tend to try to fill the void with all the wrong things, and those substitutes for the real thing leave us all the more dissatisfied and troubled by pangs for something more.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Beat Generation poet, wrote a poem that names the longing of humankind. He entitled the poem, “I am Waiting,” and this is its concluding stanza:
I am waiting
to get some intimations
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder.
The poet longs for a rebirth of wonder, although he seems to consider his waiting for it to be futile. But that begs the question, “Rebirth? When was the gift of wonder born in the first place?” If Ferlinghetti is perpetually and forever awaiting a renaissance of wonder, does that not imply that the gift is here, albeit misplaced or lost?
The gift of God’s Son born at Bethlehem beckons our restless hearts to relocate the wonder that the shepherds sought.
This gift is for us; Emmanuel – God with us – has come, and has unleashed the power of grace, a power to forgive, to recreate, and to encourage and restore us. That sort of love is a wonder to behold. And it’s a wonder to claim. During Advent we sing, “O come, Desire of nations, bind/ in one the hearts of all mankind;/ bid thou our sad divisions cease,/ and be thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. We do sing this hymn to remember the birth of the gift of wonder, not because we are nostalgic, but because we need always to renew our trust that the power of wonder is here for the asking and the receiving. That is our Christmas proclamation. Emmanuel has come; God is present with us; and we have the gift to re-open and to treasure for God’s sake and ours.
At a recent dinner with friends, our kind host spoke affectionately and thoughtfully about my years of ministry at St. Mary’s. He was in warm, reflective mood as he thanked me for the pastoral support I had given to his family. It struck him that all of the guests in his home that night had also benefited from my work as a priest. That prompted him to ask me whether I knew how many baptisms, weddings, and funerals I had performed during the past 38 years. I answered that I have no idea of the numbers since I’ve never consulted the parish register for a count. The reason why I haven’t done so is that I believe that, despite the fact that services are instances of common prayer, each one is unique. And that’s the truth. Every life, and every stage of life, is unique.
And as I’ve come now to the final days of my work as St. Mary’s rector, I’ve been keenly aware of the “lasts” that punctuate this month’s calendar. I think of this as I preach tonight, and will by God’s grace, celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday. Each time I feel grateful for the privilege to lead, or serve as a participant in, worship in this magnificent parish.
Last Sunday, for example, I celebrated my last baptism here. What a joy it has been to officiate at the font through these nearly four decades. My guesstimate is that I’ve stood there with babies, or adults, many hundreds of times. Sunday, the candidate for the sacrament was a little boy named Scott Patrick Bailey. He was two years old, and full of life. His curiosity, his urge to explore and experience new things, and his physical energy made the baptism a joy to do. He was aware of every move I made, and even repeated some of my words back to me. After baptizing him and sealing him with a watery cross on his forehead I asked Scott whether he would like to touch the water too. He nodded, so I bent over and let him immerse his little hand. Then I said, “Would you like to put some water on me?” He gleefully replied, “Yeah!” and proceeded to bless me with the sacred water. It was a good day for the parson – a good day for all of us to behold and believe.
The prayer following baptism expresses our gratitude to God for the sacrament by which each one of us has been raised to the “new life of grace.” The celebrant concludes with these words: “Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
Afterward, on the churchyard amidst the gravestones and numbered slabs commemorating the lives of the saints, I guided his tiny finger to press the remote control for the bell tower. The peal of bells that followed his command made Scott’s little face beam with joy and wonder. Although a two-year-old will not consciously remember the water, and the words, and bells, and the applause of his family, I pray that the experience of wonder will stay embedded with him. I hope that in some way, maybe through his parents’ telling him the story as he peers at pictures of his baptism, he may come to embrace that marvelous moment as he moves forward on his life’s journey.
Jesus said, “Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child, you will not enter it.” It’s all about wonder. That’s what a child perceives when he experiences the world. That’s what the Christ child perceived as well. Even in his lowly estate, swaddled in bands of cloth, and lying in an animal’s feeding trough, his eyes perceived the wonder of what God has wrought. He took it all in – the lovely face of his young mother, the weathered face of Joseph her betrothed, the sounds and smells of animals in the cattle shed, the huddled group of awestruck shepherds who had sought to see him, and perhaps even the light of angels circling overhead. Little Jesus beheld the glory of God in the moment, and he was filled with wonder. His vision was no ordinary vision. It was God’s view of the world into which he had sent his son, and for which his son would give his life.
It was all for the sake of love. And that’s the complete wonder of it. In Christ, God experienced what we experience, but to the fullest extent. And in Christ God offers us the vision of wonder that completes us, and fills us with spiritual food of new and unending life in him.
May God be always with you, dear friends, to bless and keep you close to the heart of the one who came to us as a little child, and gave us the gift of wonder.
 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting” from A Coney Island of the Mind. Copyright © 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation, www.wwnorton.com/nd/welcome.htm.
 Veni Emmanuel, Stanza 8.